My White Privilege


My dad, my grandma Fanny Carr, my brother and me (bottom left) outside of my dad’s childhood home in Grove, Oklahoma.

My father was born on a small farm in Delaware County, Oklahoma in 1925. At the time it was one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the nation. His parents’ birth certificates say “Indian Territory”. His father, my grandfather, died of a heart attack when my father was seven years old. It was 1932, the height of the Great Depression. My grandmother, left to care for six children, had a nervous breakdown and my father was sent off to an aunt’s house. It was a bleak beginning.

As with most of the people in the county, my father was a poor Okie Cherokee, a few generations removed from the Trail of Tears. But he looked white and had a name that sounded white. That was key. He turned 18 in 1943. The US Army timed the mail so that his draft notice arrived on his birthday. He graduated high school, went to Germany, came home, briefly attended the University of Louisville, and then jumped straight to the law school at the University of Southern California thanks to the GI Bill.

After that, he was set. He became a lawyer, married, bought a house in a nice neighborhood, and then I was set. My mom came from an equally poor background, and was of course subject to all kinds of job discrimination because she was woman. But that didn’t matter; my dad had a good job. I went to good public schools, an even better private college, and eventually earned a PhD and got a good job and a house in a nice neighborhood. Furthermore, I stand to inherit my parents’ house, which has increased 3,500% in value since I was born. It’s a textbook American dream story.

The X-factor in this story was the GI Bill. Without that, I’d probably be working at a Walmart in Tulsa. The GI Bill provided college tuition, living expenses, low-cost mortgages and low-interest business loans to nearly ten million white veterans. These benefits were largely denied to people of color. Of 67,000 low-cost mortgages, fewer than 100 went to non-whites. Yet there were about a million non-white veterans.

Today, millions of white people can trace their ascent to the higher socio-economic classes back to the GI Bill. If not that, their forefathers may have received an infusion of good fortune from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which granted unions the power of collective bargaining, a watershed moment in labor relations that gave white workers power and leverage. That Act, however, allowed unions to exclude people of color, denying them access to better jobs and union protections.

Or perhaps their big break came from the National Housing Act of 1934. This created the Federal Housing Administration, which made home mortgages available to millions of white families. Blacks and others were excluded via redlining, as were Native Americans on reservations. This, more than any other measure, led to the massive racial discrepancy in wealth today. Between 1865 and 1990, African Americans’ share of national wealth grew from 0.5% to 1.0%. This was largely a function of the value of their properties, which have not appreciated like my parents’ house.

The nation’s white grandparents and great grandparents also benefitted from the Social Security Act of 1933. This only applied to half the workers in the economy; farm and domestic labor, both predominately black, were exempt. At the time, approximately 65% of blacks were ineligible for Social Security.

Some white people can trace their families’ properties all the way back to the Homestead Act of 1862 (or several later revisions of it), which essentially gave away over 270 million acres of land taken from Native Americans. Nearly all of that went to white settlers. This amounted to about 14% of the Lower 48. Compared to Spanish Latin America, where vast haciendas were granted to a few powerful families, the Homestead Act was remarkably progressive and egalitarian, divvying up the land to 1.6 million white families. Each family received 160 to 640 acres, essentially creating the white middle class.

These laws, some of them considered the bedrock of US public policy, illustrate that the nation was built on the premise that it was created by and for white people. The rest were either second class citizens, support staff, slaves, or not wanted at all. This was not only white privilege, it was welfare, socialism, and affirmative action for whites only.

And I benefit from it to this day.

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3 Responses to My White Privilege

  1. Yes, looking white paved my family’s way as well. That and the GI bill. Sure sets up a lot of complexity.

  2. Celest says:

    Thank you for writing this, Steve. So clear & important.

  3. Laura says:

    This is a powerful look at our history. I don’t know why, but somehow I’m still surprised when friends hear that the GI Bill wasn’t a *completely* good thing. Our schools teach a white-centric history and it’s tearing us apart. Thank you for this post.

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